When we alighted from a public bus at Bhuntar on the bank of the Beas River after a bumpy ride on July 21, 2010, we were hungry. We wanted to snack on tasty food in an affordable place with pleasant ambience. But, Bhuntar is not a chic town. Rather it is drab. We walked around to find some good eateries in one of the major entry points of Himachal Pradesh. To our dismay, big and small shops were doing good business in tired structures lined up along two roads framing Bhuntar Bus Stand, located in front of Kullu-ManaliAirport. Some traditional halwai (sweet) shops and small unattractive eateries were located among the shops. The road in front of the bus stand is the main transport artery while a narrow road running behind it leads to market and merges into the main road at both the ends. More traffic and people than the carrying capacity of the road in disrepair cause ugly congestion.
Soft light-yellow sun with little warmth highlighted the grey sky. It drizzled for a while. The road slope changed under our feet on short intervals. We stumbled on loose stones a number of times. As vehicles passed, water splashed from puddles on the road on passersby. Since there is no pavement hemming the road, the vehicles scared us, as we were walking on the edge of the road. Air was a mélange of smells of fresh water, soot from the vehicles, rotten fruits (there is a small fruit market along the front road) and wet road. Finally, we inquired about good restaurants from a shopkeeper. Her recommendation-MalanaRestaurant-was not a disappointment though exterior was so-so.
Malana Restaurant in Hotel Malabar has two dining rooms. One serves North Indian and Chinese food and other offers South Indian fare. Both the rooms score on quality food, friendly service and clean basic conveniences. Minimalism is the rule in both the air conditioned rooms with urban atmosphere. The South Indian dining room is a cozy place with soft lighting. 4-5 tables are closely arranged in a column that stretches between the entrance door and one wide window. Maroon patterns enhance beige marble floor glistening in soft lighting. A small vase with artificial flowers in vibrant colors adorns each table covered with beige and maroon table clothes.
We ordered idli, masala dosa and vegetable uttapam. Freshly prepared vegetable uttapam (INR 65.00) was soft and masala dosa (INR 50.00) was chewy. Dal chutney was a good accompaniment. However, sambhar was watery and lacked typical sambhar flavor, which requires right combination of essential ingredients. Idlis were too small for the price charged (INR 40.00 per plate), but properly cooked and shaped. Generous helping of chutney compensated for substandard sambhar. Courteous quick service was a plus.
After two days, we traveled to Bhuntar from Katrain once again. Cottony water vapors moved in different shapes and sizes obscuring themountain view. But verdant wet slopes peeped through some grey translucent vapor masses. TheBeasRiverwas almost slathered with the vapors. It was before8:00 am, so shops were closed and traffic was thin. We tried the second dining room, which was bigger than the first dining room. Spacious table arrangement permits private talk. You can catch up on news, as a wide screen television graces one of the walls. A security camera records everything that happens in the room. Muted color schemes are inviting and soothing. On a clear day, you can watch flights from its rear window.
Rich bread rolls (INR 65.00) had a soft core- made of spicy boiled potatoes and peas, and tiny pieces of cottage cheese- neatly rolled in bread. Fresh mint and coriander chutney complemented the deep fried rolls. Thanks to the waiter who replaced bottled tomato sauce with the chutney upon our request without making a face! Freshly prepared green chutney has no match, but making chutney that has short shelf life is a time consuming process. Ironically, even healthy traditions are succumbing to convenience. Custom of serving fresh chutney is just becoming oblivion. We also sampled and enjoyed stuffed paranthas (INR 30.00 per piece) with raita (INR 30.00), grilled veg sandwiches (INR 65.00) and hot milk (INR 30.00).